Coimbatore police targets local news website, one arrested, two detained over coronavirus coverage

27 April 2020
On 24 April, several local journalists of Coimbatore staged a silent protest outside the district collector’s office in Gopalapuram, against the arrest of one of their colleagues, Andrew Sam Raja Pandian, the previous day. They observed all precautions against COVID-19 and added images of locks to their masks, symbolic of the state’s attempt to muzzle the media.
AR Babu
On 24 April, several local journalists of Coimbatore staged a silent protest outside the district collector’s office in Gopalapuram, against the arrest of one of their colleagues, Andrew Sam Raja Pandian, the previous day. They observed all precautions against COVID-19 and added images of locks to their masks, symbolic of the state’s attempt to muzzle the media.
AR Babu

On the night of 23 April, Andrew Sam Raja Pandian, a Coimbatore-based journalist, was arrested by the local police. Pandian is the founder and chief executive officer of SimpliCity, a local-news website. The complaint against him, which was filed by M Sundararajan, an assistant commissioner in the Coimbatore municipal corporation, accused Pandian of publishing articles that could derail the state government of Tamil Nadu’s efforts to manage the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier that day, two other journalists from SimpliCity, M Balaji and Jerald Aruldass, had also been detained and questioned by the Coimbatore police, for over seven hours. 

Balaji and Jerald were eventually let go after signing an undertaking that they would return to the police station for any inquiry. But the police charged Pandian under Section 3 of the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897, for disobeying regulations during a pandemic. He was also charged under two sections of the Indian Penal Code—Section 188, which deals with “disobedience to order duly promulgated by a civil servant,” and Section 505 (i), which refers to intent to incite public mischief and mutiny, among others. At around 9 pm that day, Pandian was produced before a district magistrate, and is currently remanded at the Avinashi sub-jail. Since the beginning of the outbreak, this is the first time that the Epidemic act has been invoked against a journalist in Tamil Nadu.

The complaint against Pandian referred to two articles published by SimpliCity. The first article, published on 14 April, covered a protest by medical students and trainee doctors at the Coimbatore Medical College Hospital over lack of food. The second report, published on 18 April, covered complaints from the residents of Coimbatore over pilferage in ration shops during the lockdown. The article clearly stated that the collector of Coimbatore had also taken note of the allegations and ordered an inquiry. However, the complaint against Pandian claimed that such reports would “turn doctors and public distribution system (PDS) workers against the government and derail efforts to fight the coronavirus.” 

Abhay Regi  is an editorial fellow at The Caravan.

Keywords: COVID-19 Tamil Nadu Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 Journalists' arrest
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